February 7, 2015

When our Consistory President and I were first discussing the content and agenda for this meeting this morning my mind immediately turned to a verse from proverbs that is often quoted to support meetings like this: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18.

But translated in the Contemporary English Version, we get closer to the original Hebrew meaning: “Without guidance from God law and order disappear, but God blesses everyone who obeys his Law.”

This text from Proverbs, chapter 29, is often cited to justify the work of visioning. Actually, it has nothing to do with vision, per se, but is instead about the ability to hear God’s will for God’s people and to act upon that.

Which lead me to think that this was not the perfect verse for today. It is a perfectly good verse for any day, but as a backdrop for thinking about what we want to accomplish in the coming year it isn’t that great or inspiring a verse.

I prayerfully contemplated this situation an I was drawn to another place in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Nehemiah. In chapter 4, the nation Israel is in ruins, literally and figuratively. Nehemiah has convinced the King to allow the people to rebuild their ravaged temple, their city, and their passion for this is made evident in their work to reconstruct the wall.

But there was this man, Sanballat, a Moabite who held some authority in the land at the time of Nehemiah the prophet. He heard about this band of Jews rebuilding the walls and he was angry. He ridiculed the Jews. He spoke to his associates and the army of Samaria, no doubt with a tone of ridicule and sarcasm: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble…?” The thing is, opposition to the work of God’s people has always been opposed by someone.

Nehemiah 4 is the verse that came to my mind: “So we rebuilt the wall, and all the wall was joined together to half its height; for the people had a mind to work.” (Nehemiah 4:6) Under the shadow of some angry opposition, the people went ahead and did what God had called them to do.

The temptation is – when there is opposition – is to become so worried, so terrified by the opposition, that you pray and pray and wring your hands and wait, and to stop doing what God would have us do. This happens to individuals and churches and can become the death of mission and ministry. You experience a few set-backs. The number dwindles, the budget is strained, and people think about the negatives, talk about the grim prospects — and talk themselves into death, by keeping their eye on all the difficulties and challenges and not the work God sets before them.

I imagine Nehemiah heard things like this: I just don’t know if we can make it… such a pitiful little bunch… people don’t want to go in this direction…We like things the way they were.” That’s not faith talking — that’s the emotion of fear and discouragement. Faith says: Let’s just do what’s right. Faith says: let’s turn adversity into advantage. Faith says: in spite of the trials, conflicts and circumstances – we are still going to obey this new light shed upon God’s word. There are strong parallels between our time and Nehemiah’s time. What looked like a disaster was turned, eventually, into a time that the people looked back upon as a moment in their history when new hope came forth.

Michael Piaza, part of the Center for Progressive Renewal wrote:

“While we in the church tend to think that institutional failure is just about us, the truth is that we are living in the midst of a much larger social shift that is destabilizing all of our critical institutions and creating a sense of fear, uncertainty and anxiety about our future.

In the midst of this change, the progressive church will rediscover its voice. The promise of the Gospel is that fear never has the last word, and that faith, love, and hope are always our paths forward. The future progressive church must reinvent itself in the midst of this global disorientation and step into the gap that today divides rich and poor, healthy and sick, educated and uneducated, legal resident and illegal resident, gay and straight, female and male. The church should be the place where these barriers are erased and genuine community forms to care for people victimized by the failure of the institutions built to support them. Reformed by a value of pluralism and diversity, the church provides a place for people to be known, loved, and supported as the world around us wrestles with disillusionment, violence, fear, and failure.” (Piazza, Michael S.; Trimble , Cameron B. (2011-07-15). Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Kindle Locations 331-340). Pilgrim Press/United Church Press. Kindle Edition.)

Let us pray: God of new beginnings every day, as we come before you, open our hearts and spirit to the difficult and rewarding work of discipleship. We have been working at caring for one another as you call us to do. Help us now, to add effort to the vision you supply, to add action and concern for our wider community; for your gospel is for the whole world. Inspire us. Grant us your Spirit and a mind to work. Amen.